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Israel announces largest West Bank land seizure since 1993 during Blinken visit

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives to talk to the media before departure at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on Friday. Blinken has been on a whistle-stop tour of the region to support truce talks in Qatar that involve indirect negotiations between Israel and Palestinian Hamas officials.  (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool/AFP)
By Cate Brown Washington Post

Israel’s far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, announced the seizure of nearly 4 square miles of Palestinian territory in the West Bank on Friday.

The move marks the single largest land seizure by the Israeli government since the 1993 Oslo accords, according to Peace Now, a settlement watchdog group.

“While there are those in Israel and the world who seek to undermine our right over the Judea and Samaria area and the country in general,” Smotrich said Friday, referring to the territory by its biblical name, “we are promoting settlement through hard work and in a strategic manner all over the country.”

Israeli settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal under international law. Still, Israel has used land orders like the one issued Friday to gain control over 16% of Palestinian-controlled lands in the West Bank. The newly seized area includes parcels in the Jordan Valley and between the settlements of Maale Adumim and Keidar. The announcement came as Secretary of State Antony Blinken landed in Tel Aviv for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the future of the war in Gaza. Blinken’s arrival followed meetings in Cairo with several Arab leaders and amid calls from Democratic senators for President Biden to establish a framework for a two-state solution that recognizes a “nonmilitarized Palestinian state.”

Friday’s land order is particularly problematic for the prospect of a two-state solution, experts say.

“If Israel confiscates land around Jerusalem, all the way to the Dead Sea, there will be no future for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem,” said Hamza Zubiedat, a land rights activist for the Ramallah-based Ma’an Development Center. “This is where a Palestinian capital was supposed to be located, according to the American and European talks.”

The land transfer will also cut across the West Bank, dividing the north and south.

“If the Israelis annex this area near Maale Adumim, it will be a catastrophe for Palestinians who live in the south,” Zubiedat said. “Palestinian traders, especially in the south, will be cut off, and it will become impossible to have any independent Palestinian ways of life.”

More than 40% of the West Bank is under the control of Israeli settlers, according to the Israel-based rights group B’Tselem, and more than half-a-million Jewish residents now live in the West Bank. The record number of settlers in the West Bank is dispersed across more than 200 settlements and unofficial outposts that have fractured the Palestinian territory and displaced Palestinian residents, B’Tselem reports. Israel’s government has also introduced incentives to move Jewish residents into West Bank settlements. In recent years, the Housing Ministry has offered subsidized apartments in the West Bank through a lottery system.

Palestinians have little ability to stop the land transfers. After the 1967 war, Israel issued a military order that stopped the process of land registration across the West Bank. Now families lack the paperwork to prove that they have private ownership over their land. And tax records, the only other evidence of West Bank property rights, are not accepted by Israeli authorities.

In June, the Knesset waived a long-standing legal precedent that required the prime minister and the defense minister to sign off on West Bank settlement construction at every phase. Smotrich enjoys near-total control over construction planning and approvals in the West Bank, and approved a record number of settlements in 2023.

“Israel has reached the conclusion that they could get away with this huge land grab because of the lack of international action,” said Sarit Michaeli, International Advocacy Lead at B’Tselem. “There have been individual economic U.S. sanctions placed on violent settlers, but the greater violence of the Occupation is this colossal land theft.”

Smotrich, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, is a key leader in Israel’s settlement movement. Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli political analyst, called Smotrich’s Friday land transfer announcement a “provocation,” but also the continuation of his pro-settler ideological project. “He entered the government with one overriding purpose: to annex all land conquered in 1967 and extend permanent Jewish sovereignty everywhere, no matter how and when it has to happen,” Scheindlin said.

“The timing and provocation ahead of Blinken’s visit is a bonus.”

The Biden administration announced sanctions on two West Bank settler outposts earlier this month, the first use of such economic restrictions on Israeli outposts. While West Bank settlements are authorized by the Israeli government, outposts are considered illegal under Israeli law.

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Sam Granados and Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.